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The roles kids play.

girls-bullying-girlsThere are many roles that young people can play. Teens can bully others, they can be bullied, or they may witness bullying. When they are involved in bullying, they often play more than one role. Sometimes youth may both be bullied and bully others or they may witness other kids being bullied.

It is important to understand the multiple roles young people play in order to effectively prevent and respond to bullying.


Importance of Not Labeling Youth

When referring to a bullying situation, it is easy to call someone who bullies others “bully” and those who are targeted “victims,” but this may have unintended consequences. When young people are labeled as “bullies” or “victims” it may:

  • Send the message that their behavior cannot change
  • Fail to recognize the multiple roles they might play in different bullying situations
  • Disregard other factors contributing to the behavior such as peer influence or school climate

Instead of labeling the individuals involved, focus on the behavior. For instance:

  • Instead of calling a youth a “bully,” refer to them as “the person who bullied”
  • Instead of calling a youth a “victim,” refer to them as “the person who was bullied”
  • Instead of calling a youth a “bully/victim,” refer to them as “the person who was both bullied and bullied others.”



Teens involved in bullying.

The roles young people play in bullying are not limited to those who bully others and those who are bullied. Some researchers talk about the “circle of bullying” to define both those directly involved in bullying and those who actively or passively assist the behavior or defend against it. Direct roles include:

  • Kids who Bully: These children engage in bullying behavior towards their peers. There are many risk factors that may contribute to the child’s involvement in the behavior. Often, these students require support to change their behavior and address any other challenges that may be influencing their behavior.
  • Kids who are Bullied: These children are the targets of bullying behavior. Some factors put children at more risk of being bullied, but not all children with these characteristics will be bullied. Sometimes, these children may need help learning how to respond to bullying.

Even if a young person is not directly involved in bullying, they may be contributing to the behavior. Witnessing the behavior may also affect them, so it is important for them to learn what they should do when they see bullying happen.

Roles young people play when they witness bullying include:

  • Kids who Assist: These teens may not start the bullying or lead in the bullying behavior, but serve as an “assistant” to others who are bullying. They may encourage the bullying behavior and occasionally join in.
  • Kids who Reinforce: These individuals are not directly involved in the bullying behavior but they give the bullying an audience. They will often laugh or provide support for the young people who are engaging in bullying. This may encourage the bullying to continue.
  • Outsiders: These individuals remain separate from the bullying situation. They neither reinforce the bullying behavior nor defend the person being bullied. Some may watch what is going on but do not provide feedback about the situation to show they are on anyone’s side. Even so, providing an audience may encourage the bullying behavior.
  • Kids who Defend: These children actively comfort the child being bullied and may come to the child’s defense when bullying occurs.

Most kids play more than one role in bullying over time. In some cases, they may be directly involved in bullying as the one bullying others or being bullied and in others they may witness bullying and play an assisting or defending role. Every situation is different. Some kids are both bullied and bully others. It is important to note the multiple roles kids play, because:

  • Those who are both bullied and bully others may be at more risk for negative outcomes, such as depression or suicidal ideation.
  • It highlights the need to engage all kids in prevention efforts, not just those who are known to be directly involved